Some of the most captivating light shows witnessed here on earth, are actually occurring 300+ miles above our heads, in the upper atmosphere. A result of spectacular solar storms, the Aurora Borealis has captivated thousands of men, women and children. I am one of them. I have spent countless hours, in mind-numbing temperatures (-42 Celsius), chasing the lights in an attempt to capture what many people fly half way around the world to experience.
Have I been successful? I guess that`s subjective. At -42, after standing on a frozen lake, in the middle of nowhere, just shy of the Arctic circle, success can be very subjective. I made it back home alive, so I would consider that a success. After many attempts, and many frozen fingers, I have captured photos which I am proud to share. So I consider that a success. But it seems the more times you venture out, the more you try to hone your skills and capture more unique and inspiring photos.
I am by no means an expert – in fact I`m quite new to this, only having started just over a year ago. As I mentioned, many attempts later and having captured hundreds of photos, I have found a few things which seem to work. I hope they help you in your attempts to capture some of these incredible light shows.
I have found that experimentation is the key to finding what works best on any particular night. There are so many variables, you really need to explore – your camera, your location, the conditions outside, all have an impact on your final shots. So be creative, experiment and have fun.
Lens Choice – Wide Angle, Fisheye, …
If you have a wide angle lens, it will help you capture some great Aurora shots. You can get good Aurora shots quite successfully with other lenses, but I have come to like the results I get with the wide angle lens. Be aware that wide angle lenses result in slightly underexposed images compared to the same scene taken with a standard lens. You may need to adjust your exposure length or aperture accordingly. Others find great success with a fisheye lens. They create some very unique perspectives, especially with Aurora shots.
Using my wide angle lens (Tokina 11-16mm), I find the following settings to produce the best captures:
- ISO 400 to 800 (less noise at 400 but require longer exposure with the wide angle).
- Lowest possible aperture (my lens goes to f2.8)
- 15-30 second exposures (again, depending on the available light – i.e. ambient, city, moonlight, etc…, try variations)
If you want to really get creative, take a flashlight (or independent flash if you have one) and play around with it. Scout out some interesting locations, expose for 15-30 seconds, flash a foreground object. It’s an interesting effect. Introduce some light painting effects, and you’ll get some great creativity to your photos. Vehicles can be a night photographer’s nightmare, but with Auroras, a vehicles lights passing through an exposure, with Aurora dancing across the sky, can be very interesting.
About the Author: David Heffernan is from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories) – you can see more of his work at http://picasaweb.google.com/droyheffernan